Martin Luther King Jr, the “Arc of the Moral Universe,” and Maintaining Faith in Difficult Times

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

When I thought I would write about Martin Luther King, Jr., that was the first quote that came to mind. Apparently King used this line more than once — a brief Google search reveals he said this in an essay he wrote in 1958, and in a Baccalaureate sermon he preached in 1964. But in the essay, he puts the line in quotation marks, showing that he did not consider this his original thought; indeed, it comes form the ideas of a nineteenth century Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker. There’s an informative post on the “Quote Investigator” website that traces the history of this particular soundbite.

Nelson Mandela has become associated with the lines “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us,” even though they were actually written by Marianne Williamson. In a similar way, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” has become linked in our cultural group mind with Martin Luther King, Jr., even though he didn’t come up with the idea — he just popularized it. But that’s enough for the idea to become “his” in its own way.

But my purpose is not to trace the genealogy of a quotation, but rather to reflect on its merits. On Saturday, Fran and I had brunch with a group of friends that we regularly spend time; they are all people of faith, politically engaged, and great conversationalists — wonderful associates for a morning salon. Fran and I had seen the movie Just Mercy the night before, so naturally our conversation explored questions of criminal justice, racism, the culture of the American south, and our current political divide.

That last matter inspired one man at the table to lament, “When I look at the forces that keep us divided in America today, the situation seems hopeless.” He was referring to how entrenched tribalism has divided the major political parties, with partisan media pundits, the rancor on social media, and competing narratives for how we identify problems in our society and the steps we need to take to fix them. It seems that we are so divided, not only in our values but even in the way we think and the stories we tell each other about the world we live in, that the possibility of actually bringing people together is, well, almost hopeless.

Most of the people around the table disagreed — hopefully we were kind in doing so! I cited “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” and then I told a story about Cynthia Bourgeault, found in her book Love is the Answer, What is the Question?

In her essay “Lines of My Own Composed Above Tintern Abbey, November 11, 2016,” Bourgeault recounts visiting the ruins of the Cistercian Abbey in Wales, made famous by William Wordsworth. She was there at dusk on November 7 — the night before the election in America when Donald Trump upset Hilary Clinton to be elected the 45th president of the USA. Like many people who supported Clinton, Bourgeault saw the possibility of a Trump presidency as a moral disaster — a triumph for racism, for nativism, for the wolf of economic inequality masquerading as the sheep of “pro-business” politics. Meditating on the solemn but sad beauty of the monastic ruins, she thought about how this was a place where the light of prayer shone for centuries, only to be snuffed out by the violence of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. In Bourgeault’s words,

Monks were deposed or slaughtered, the building was sacked and vandalized, its treasures were confiscated for the crown. Three centuries of peaceful and compassionate striving in this ‘school for the Lord’s service’ ended in an orgy of violence.

It might be easy to see these silent ruins as a witness to the triumph of fear over faith, of religious resentment over meditative prayer (of course, others might see it as a triumph of Protestant enlightenment over Catholic superstition, but that would just be the party line of those who perpetrated the violence). But at that moment, Bourgeault received a powerful insight, intuitively coming to her from the very walls of the ruined abbey itself.

Do not look upon us as a destroyed monastery, but as a living transmission. Know that what is forged in the alchemy of love is beyond the ravages of time. All else may dissolve; this alone remains. But in your own transfigured heart, you will always find it.

“I already knew beyond any doubt what the election results would be,” Bourgeault wrote. “My heart ached, but I was at last ready to face it.”

Faith really is “the evidence of things not seen.” It really does support us through those terrible moments when all appears to be lost. It is a reminder that “Love is as strong as death,” but death will someday die, and when it does, only love remains.

This morning as I scanned the Internet trying to understand the history of “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” I was saddened to find a cynical article by liberal pundit Chris Hayes, who flatly declares “The idea that the moral universe inherently bends towards justice is inspiring. It’s also wrong.” According to Hayes, “this story, and the analogy of the long imperceptibly trending line of progress, is wrong. It does not allow for what is perhaps the most significant feature of the story of racial justice in America: backlash and backwards movement. And 50 years after King’s death, that’s the most brutal reality we must confront.”

He supports his cynical view by noting how white supremacism has been an integral part of American culture since its founding, and that many of the gains of the Civil Rights movement have actually been eroded or reversed in recent decades. All of which, of course, is true, and must be addressed by all people of good faith and conscience, regardless of race.

But Hayes’s lack of faith is based on two faulty premises: first that he thinks “the arc of history” is only about America (it’s much bigger than that), and second, that the “bend toward justice” must be smooth and consistent.

As any biologist can tell you, evolution meanders. There are false starts and wrong turns on the long march toward growth and natural progression. What is true biologically is just as true socially or politically.

As Bourgeault could see, it’s hell when we are in those times of “backlash and backwards movement,” whether its violence against monasteries or the ascendency of white supremacism following the election of a racist president. But it is precisely in those times of apparent defeat that we must not lose faith, or hope.

Hayes acknowledges that “Nothing bends towards justice without us bending it.” What he doesn’t see is that if one generation fails, the next generation has the opportunity to clean up the mess. And sooner or later, that happens. The moral arc of the universe is long — which means we can’t expect one generation to solve all our problems, frustrating as that may be. But it bends toward justice precisely because of the good work that people of conscience do in every generation — even when we’re in the minority.

So let’s not lose the hope that the “moral arc” offers us. Let’s remember that it is a long arc, and let’s take up the challenge that it only bends when we do the hard work to make it so. But let’s also remember “the alchemy of love that is beyond the ravages of time.” If we lose today’s battle, tomorrow still offers us hope. And it is that hope that enables us to carry on — and that demands we do so.

Photo Credit: Brian Kraus on Unsplash



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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.